Four people who battled addiction with help from the Total Freedom program – which takes place on a working farm about 25 miles outside Buffalo – recently talked about how their lives have changed
Each credited the structure, healthy practices and shared support the program provides – as well as the central role they say God has provided in their recovery.
Maury Buffum feels most comfortable in the vegetable garden at Total Freedom Farm in Darien Center.
It's in his blood.
The latest harvest season was a good one for tomatoes, said Buffum, 63, who grew up in Elma and ran the family dairy farm until addiction put an end to his old life in 1997.
"I turned my back on the Lord, got to drinking a lot and I got into drugs real bad," he said.
Booze, crack cocaine and a series of broken relationships defined recent decades. Buffum went through a series of inpatient and outpatient programs, and got two years clean about five years ago. He hit bottom in June 2016, when he was charged with felony grand larceny and spent three weeks in jail.
"I wasn't brought up that way," he said. "I was raised in a good Christian home."
His sister heard about the Total Freedom program and connected Buffum to the leaders, John and Victoria Kula.
"I came here and struggled a little bit," he said during an interview in the garden. "I didn't like being told what to do. But I knuckled down, did what they wanted me to do. I've done good in programs before. There's a discipline I try to hold to."
Buffum was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to time served. He finished his nine-month program in late April, stayed on in Apartment 3 at the Shiloh Country Acres motel on the Total Freedom Farm, and got a job as a customer service associate at Valu Home Center in Alden.
"It's something different," he said. "I'm not used to working inside. I've been a farmer and landscaper and construction worker."
As with others in the program, the Kulas encouraged Buffum to seek a job when he was about five months into Total Freedom. Valu Home Center is one of several nearby employers which have supported the program's mission, the couple said.
Where does Buffum go from here?
"I'm not totally sure," he said. "I did take Social Security, so I'm limited in what I can earn."
He also plans to soon marry for the first time.
"My hope is to have a good life with this lady, a good Christian lady. Our hope is to grow old together," and maybe become ministry witnesses for others "that there is a better way to live."
What made the Total Freedom program different? Buffum choked back tears as he answered.
"I'm stronger. I've given my life over to Jesus Christ. It was a total surrender. Now, I'm living my faith."
Ivan Tsygyrlash is grateful to his family – and God – that he is still alive.
Tsygyrlash (pronounced Tiger-lash) spent three years addicted to Suboxone, heroin, or both. He had become so weak by last spring that he couldn't stop his loved ones from carrying him into the Total Freedom program.
"The Holy Spirit brought me here," the 23-year-old Riverside native said recently after a service in the Total Freedom chapel. "I tried everything not to come here. I tried to go to any other rehab. My dad just wanted me to go somewhere. I was bad, knocking on death's door."
He had attended another faith-based addictions treatment program and left after three months, only to hit bottom and end up on the Total Freedom Farm a month later.
The first couple of weeks were an adjustment, he said, but the time since "has been blessings upon blessings."
Tsygyrlash said he spends his time constructively on the farm and continues to add more faith in his future prospects. "The joy of the process builds on itself," he said.
He is grateful for the support of family and his new circle of friends.
What would he like to say to others in their 20s still struggling as he once did?
"How badly do you want a better life? You have to fight."
Doug Schroth thought during his younger years that he might one day become a youth pastor in his native Rochester. Instead, he became "Dougie Fresh," a larger-than-life bouncer, bartender, and entrepreneur.
"I was brought up in a good Christian family," he said. "At some point, I took my own road, enjoying doing what I wanted to do. I didn't listen to anyone giving me the warning signs."
Schroth, 49, is imposing in size but fun by nature. In his former work life, he could drink on the job. The combination afforded him lots of opportunities for excess with women and alcohol.
About a dozen years ago, he and a friend moved to Cleveland, hoping to expand an indoor volleyball club that had started in Rochester. Instead, they plugged into the bar scene, throwing volleyball tournaments that attracted pro athletes and other notables.
"That made me feel more than who I was," he said.
Schroth returned to Rochester and about five years ago when he mother got sick. He took day jobs in office settings that didn’t last long. "I would drink like I could before and I'd be showing up to work and smelling like a brewery," he said, "and I'd start doing drugs because I needed to stay up while I was at work."
Soon, he was struggling to pay rent and stay in his own apartment. Next came a couple of inpatient addiction treatment programs.
"I wanted to get clean," Schroth said. "I wanted my family back. With all of the drinking, you'd end up burning family ties. I'd end up calling my family members and three hours later I'd call em back not remembering I'd called them.”
His family was just about done with Schroth when they discovered the Total Freedom Farm.
"Three days later, I walked through the door and my life has been transformed," he said.
He almost didn't come. An avid sports fan, he was scheduled to arrive on a big NFL playoff weekend. Pastor John Kula, head of the program, said there were no TVs at the farm and that if Schroth waited, there might not be room for him.
"I'm glad he did that," Schroth said. "If I didn't take him seriously when he said that, I never would have come.
"When I came through the doors and they laid hands on me and prayed over me, I lost all want for a drink. It's hard to explain to people who've never been through it but I don't have a taste for alcohol anymore.
"By the grace of God, I really wanted this program. It's not an easy program but I had a background in it so I knew everything in it was true."
Schroth lost 80 pounds during the nine months he was in the program – and has looked to follow in Kula's footsteps.
"The discipleship is what got me back from what I was missing from those other rehabs...," he said. "Here, I went through the healing process. I got to the root of what was going on, where it started and where my drinking got worse. I was set free."
Schroth continues to live on the farm, as house manager of the Total Freedom program.
"I wanted to be a dad all my life and now I've arranged to have up to 15 kids," he said. "I put myself in their shoes all the time. I have to remember that if they never had any problems, they wouldn't be here."
Among the important lessons he's learned during the program?
"The slogan that we have – 'You fight what you can't see' – is something I never would have understood. It's a spiritual battle. That's what it was."
Ryan Shoemaker is still getting used to a new father, even though he's had the same one for 17 years.
"I've known the new Glenn a year and a half," he said of his dad, who hasn't touched tobacco or alcohol since he arrived on the Total Freedom Farm on March 21, 2016.
"John and Victoria opened their doors for me and showed me how to fill the void in my life," Glenn Shoemaker said.
He had tried more than 20 alcohol addiction programs over two decades beforehand.
"The day I came in here, I was drunk," Shoemaker said during an interview in the farmstead chapel. He did so to pacify his then-girlfriend, Debbie, who told him she and their son were finished with him.
Shoemaker smoked up to four packs of cigarettes and downed at least two 1.75-liter bottles of vodka a day at the time.
"I replaced that with the love of the Lord," he said. "Pastor John came up and said, 'Surrender everything to the Lord.' It's pretty tough when you hear, 'Give up your child, your girlfriend.' It's pretty hard to accept when you're 52 and your set in your own ways.
"I decided to try Pastor John's way, and I'm sitting here today as a proud husband of Debbie and proud father of Ryan."
Glenn and Debbie had been together for two decades. They married July 15.
Their son, who has spina bifida, calls his "new" father, "The good Glenn, the real Glenn."
"Everything is different," Ryan Shoemaker said. "His personality. His entire demeanor. Little things don't aggravate him as much."
The family lives in a motel apartment on the Total Freedom property. Debbie Shoemaker said her husband is more involved in family life. The trio like to go shopping, go on park outings and do volunteer work.
Glenn has been a construction worker throughout his adult life. The Kulas have given him the opportunity to continue in that line of work on – and off – their farm, by allowing him to run a program-related remodeling business, Freedom Restoration.
"You don't feel the love in the secular programs that you do here," Glenn Shoemaker said. … "Pastor John, Pastor Richard (Gritzke), Doug, it's all done out of love. When you feel that love and accept that love, there's nothing to replace it.
"Accepting the Lord doesn't cost me any money. It doesn't cost my insurance company. Anybody can get it, for free. All you've got to do is want it – and I wanted it.
"Give everything to the glory of God and you'll be surprised how your life changes. I don't have a huge bank account but I have everything I need."